By Peter Hiller
When a book spurs one to do something, you have probably experienced a good read. That was the case with Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows. Theirs is a multi-year look at numerous small towns across America which are working on remaking themselves into renewed communities.
One of the themes that the writers follow is libraries. They have discovered that in most growing and revisualizing towns that libraries provide much more than a place to check out a book.
The authors share in the writing of the book, with Deborah Fallows often writing about the libraries. She comments, “After visits to dozens of public libraries from Maine to Arizona, from Mississippi to Minnesota, I saw that America’s public libraries, the place people used to go primarily to find books or do research, have become the heart and soul of American communities. I learned that in the library, I could discover the spirit of a town, get a feel for the people’s needs and wants, and gauge their energy and mettle.”
With this idea in mind, I thought it would be interesting to take a fresh look at one of the many libraries in Monterey County. I selected a local branch in a locally community that, to me, represented a good cross section of the county — a diverse city, not the richest or the poorest. I made two visits at different times during the day during summer months, which I learned have a different tone than during the school year. Attendance was average, but as one librarian pointed out to me, when it is a sunny summer day and the beach is nearby, it is a little harder to compete.
It was clear that this library acts
as a gathering place for the community.
It was clear that this library acts as a gathering place for the community. In spite of the weather, there were already a dozen people of various ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds waiting at 11 a.m. for the front door for the library to open.
The first sights I noticed were bulletin boards featuring both upcoming library events and local community events. The variety of options on the library bulletin board were inspiring. The library has a telescope to check out, offers fitness classes, has a story time and laptops available for teens, in addition to offering a Book Club To Go program — all the materials needed to start a book club with your friends, including 10 copies of the book from a list of options.
Next to the community events were riders guides for the MST, copies of Monterey County Weekly and easy access to a copy machine. Also in this front lobby area were shelves with used books, magazines and video material for sale — I didn’t see anything over $1.00.
It is obvious that many people come to use the computers, at least 24 in different areas, including some in a separate room designated as the Homework Center. The library is a wifi hotspot for those with their own computer.
There is a large children’s area full of age-appropriate books. While I was at the front desk, two young readers, or patrons as the library users are called, came in to have the librarian mark their Summer Reading Logs as they had finished books and wanted to select their prizes from this program that is designed to foster continued interest in reading during nonschool months.
This library branch has created special outreach events on summer Wednesdays. Lunch is provided at no cost, with thanks to the MPUSD and the Food Bank. The day I visited there were also fresh vegetables and fruits available to adults to take home. Lunch was followed by a live musical performance, which attracted more than 60 patrons — on a sunny day.
In discussing the role of the library with one of the librarians, she noted how grateful they are to be able to get to know their patrons. This familiarity enables them to craft their offerings to meet the needs of their community. When they realized that there wasn’t a movie theater in their town, they started what has become a very successful twice-a-month movie night for their patrons, showing carefully chosen movies appropriate for family viewing.
As many libraries have created make-it spaces with fancy 3-D printers, this library has not had any quantity of requests for such, so their focus has been more on arts and crafts, which has been very popular.
As the librarians have come to know their patrons, they have discovered a large interest in job seeking skills — writing resumes, interview practice, and consequently they will be offering a class for such in the fall.
In her observations of libraries, Deborah Fallows has discovered that an awareness of technology, focus on education and engagement with the community are among the linchpins of successful libraries these days. My experience — at the Seaside branch of the Monterey County Free Libraries system — certainly confirms this library as a dynamic center for this community.
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